Don Quixote Goes Digital

by rthieme on November 7, 1998

don-quixoteDon Quixote Goes Digital appeared last month with editorial modifications under a different title in Salon Magazine (www.salonmagazine.com). By agreement with the publisher, it is not to be published by other venues until sixty days after the publication date.

Much of the email generated by the publication of the article turned on the real meaning of the word “hacker.” In the Denver Post and the edited/published article, Blosser was called a hacker. Yet many hackers do not consider what he did as a hack. The edges are blurred further by the common use of the word “hacker” to mean what real hackers call “crackers,” or criminals who use hacking skills in ways that are not congruent with the broader intentions of real hacking – exploration, the pursuit of knowledge, building the Big Picture, solving the puzzle, serendipitous discovery, impish playfulness, and the sheer exhilaration of exercising power with intelligence, grace and some finesse.

And the murkiness is murked up even more by the fractal-like replication of hacking generations every decade or so. Each hacking generation is true to the values of real hacking, but the forms of their exploration are determined by the structures of our technologies. The near-thirty generation quoted in the article is not the first generation of hackers to move into positions of power and authority but they are the first to have “grown up digital.” So the essential question is, as technology changes and redefines the “space” in which we hack, what forms will real hacking take?

But that question is for another time. Here is the article with some of the ambiguity of the original restored.


Don Quixote Goes Digital

Processing power is dirt cheap and Feds are crawling all over the Net. So why did Aaron Blosser use the network at US West to solve a 17th century math problem?

By Richard Thieme


“Why?” repeats Aaron Blosser. “Why not?”

The question hangs in the air like the grin of the Cheshire cat, a koan posed by a 28-year-old programmer sitting in his apartment in Denver, Colorado. Aaron Blosser has a lot more room to stretch out in his place these days, now that the FBI took away his Pentium II (Blosser called it Big Boy), his 486 (Little Boy), and a pile of his CDs. It’s all gone, perhaps forever. And so is his job as a computer consultant.

Blosser lost big because he went on a careless quest for a mathematical grail – the next Mersenne prime. Ever since Marin Mersenne identified a unique class of prime numbers in the 17th century, digit-searchers have
been on the prowl for the next Big One. Their search reached the Internet a few years ago, with the release of Mersenne-hunting software that anyone can download. Blosser, a systems consultant working for US West, installed it on the company’s customer service network in September. He should have known how to configure the software to run in the background, but instead he misconfigured the machines so that they checked for network activity every two seconds instead of every twenty minutes – flooding the system with packets in the process.

“We noticed a degradation of service at once,” says a spokesman for US West. “We respect the pursuit of knowledge, but our workers tend to get irate if the network is not available for work.” Thus, while the investigation of the case continues, US West is urging the FBI to prosecute Blosser as quickly as possible.

The Denver Post called him a hacker, but that handle is part of the problem. What Aaron did IS what hackers did do, once upon a time. But it’s not what many older hackers do now. For them, the Golden Age of Hacking, which began in the sixties when mainframes at MIT became the Big Toy of a new generation, is over.

Like most hackers, Blosser wasn’t trying to be BAD. He was trying to advance knowledge, solve a puzzle, find out how things work. From Leonardo da Vinci to Dark Tangent, White Hat hackers are driven by a passion for knowledge, not a desire to foul things up. When Blosser loaded the Mersenne program onto the network at U S West, he wasn’t trying to bring down the network. And he certainly wasn’t trying to hide. (His name and email address were all over the software.) But his so-called “hack” was unnecessary. Kids did this kind of thing when games were cracked using Apple IIs, then sent to friends via slow, acoustic-coupled modems at 300 bauds. Laws against unauthorized computer intrusion were all but nonexistent then. The challenges of playing the game and cracking the game were identical. Today, hackers play the game of life with real money on the table and the credible threat of prison sentences hanging over their heads.

Taking over a Baby Bell’s network in the pursuit of pure Knowledge may sound romantic, but more experienced hackers say it no longer makes much practical sense.

“The media tends to portray all security breaches as ‘hacks,’ but hacking is not just about security,” says security professional Yobie Benjamin. “It’s about the whole domain of computer science – moving from node to node
to see how things look. It’s about harnessing the power of distributed computing.” Benjamin laughs. “Blosser needs what Weld Pond calls a midnight basketball league to keep him off the streets.”

That is indeed what Weld Pond and the rest of the gang at Boston’s L0pht Heavy Industries call their enterprise – a midnight basketball game for hackers. Still animated by a passion for Solving the Puzzle and Seeing the Big Picture, the L0pht crew carries those hacker ideals forward by uncovering security holes in Windows NT or Novell products – without actually trespassing on anyone’s system.

That’s easier than ever to do these days, thanks to the open-door network of Windows, UNIX and Sun machines available at upt.org – the computer playpen descended from the BBS where some of hacking’s best and the brightest honed their skills before graduating into corporate and intelligence ranks. “A lot of the old reasons to break in just aren’t there any more,” says security consultant Tom Jackiewicz, who helped administer the upt.org BBS. “Nobody can say they can’t afford a UNIX box when all you have to do is throw some free LINUX onto a PC. You want to hack a Sun system? Break into ours – if you can.”

Jackiewicz said it’s more fun to secure a network against hackers than hack. Much more complex. You have to explore every single interaction among all the components, check out “all the weird shit that can happen.

“A guy called the other day to say he’d gotten root in our system,” Tom laughed. “In fact, he was trapped in one of the five subsystems we created to look like the system.” That’s where hacking is at now, working at that level of detail, that level of complexity.

Likewise, if it was empty processor cycles that Blosser wanted, he didn’t need to siphon off US West’s resources. When the number-crunchers at Distributed.net decided to show that the US government’s security claims about 56-bit DES cryptography were a sham, they simply created a software client that anyone could download. After 4000 teams contributed computing power to break the code, DES fell in 212 days. The next challenge, DES II-1, cracked in 40. As David McNett of distributed.net puts it, “I question Blosser’s judgement, not his motives.”

Hacking’s “white hat” ideal lives on, but suitable targets for Robin Hood-style adventures have become increasingly hard to find. In 1997, a hacker and phreaker named Se7en went on a rampage against cyber-pedophiles, targeting their hangouts for network subversion. Nobody knows for sure how many web
sites or IRC lairs Se7en and his cohorts took down, but nobody lifted a finger to curtail their vigilante attacks. And when Peter Shipley at dis.org uncovered gaping flaws in the Oakland, California fire department
dispatch system during a massive war-dialing project, authorities overlooked his campaign – in no small part because Shipley volunteered to fix the holes instead of bringing chaos to the streets of Oakland.

With all that in mind, Blosser’s network-clogging “hack” was a throwback to the early 1990s, a ghost of hacking past, a Don Quixote apparition of a bygone age when the anarchist rhetoric of John Perry Barlow actually seemed to make sense. Cyberspace felt free then, even if it existed by permission of the military-industrial-educational complex that spawned it. Quixote became crazed after immersing himself in books. That was the paradigm-breaking technology then, 150 years after the invention of the printing press. Blosser’s “hack” illuminates the splendid mythologies of a Golden Age of Hacking that have spread in the digital era on the Net.

Today, the laws have tightened, surveillance technologies are ubiquitous, big money is at stake, and the borderless economy is learning to regulate itself. Yet when asked why he loaded that software onto the network at US West, a kid who is nearly 30 laughs and says, “Why not?”

Why not? Because it no longer pays to sustain the illusion. The hackers who played in that club house are all going downtown, making good money while trying to keep their values intact.

Perspective, as Alan Kay said, is worth fifty points of IQ. Maybe we all looked just plain dumb as we lowered the lance and charged the turning blades of the wired world. Blosser’s naive quest for the prime may be charming, but experienced hackers understand why it no longer pays to have that kind of innocence.

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